The UK can fully decarbonise by 2050 at a “very low cost”, the first head of parliament’s climate change watchdog has claimed.

Lord Turner, who chaired the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) from 2008 to 2012, told a briefing yesterday (24 April) that the “net-zero” emissions target could be achieved even faster than the middle of this century.

At the event, organised by the Energy and Climate Information Unit thinktank ahead of the publication next week of the CCC’s report on the feasibility of meeting the zero-carbon goal by 2050, he said: “The critical thing is that we can do it at very low cost by 2050.

And meeting the net-zero goal by 2045 is achievable with “real effort and some behavioural change”, the former CBI director general said: “If society is willing to accept more than a trivial cost, we could bring that date forward.”

The government has sought the CCC’s advice following the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s conclusion last October that global emissions must be cut to net zero by 2050 in order to prevent average worldwide temperatures rising 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The government’s current target is to cut carbon emissions to 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050.

Lord Turner, who is now chair of the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC), said that in order to meet the more stretching net-zero target the electricity system should “ideally” be “almost entirely” decarbonised by 2030. Ensuring the electricity system is fully decarbonised by 2050 will require either the total removal of gas during the previous 20 years or the fitting of carbon capture and storage technology on the remaining peaking plants.

However, the “unanticipated over-achievement” of the power sector has “covered up” the UK’s failure to cut emissions from surface transport and homes, which has seen “insufficient progress”, the peer said: “We’re going to have get serious about the home and transport sectors, which have bluntly been failures in the last five years.”

He also said the government should be open-minded about using a mix of market and regulatory mechanisms to cut emissions.

Lord Turner said there had been “too much focus” on market solutions in the years following 2010, adding that the coalition government’s Green Deal initiative had been less successful than more directly interventionist schemes for subsidising loft insulation.

“One has to be pragmatic… A more regulated government-driven approach may be better to get us there rapidly. We need to strike a balance between markets and regulation.”

Alex Kazaglis, principal of Vivid Economics, told the briefing that the work his company had fed into the CCC report had demonstrated that full decarbonisation of the power sector is feasible.

He said the distribution grid can be expanded quickly enough to accommodate the anticipated increase in demand from electric vehicles.

And the decarbonisation of the grid could be accelerated if there are further drops in the cost of renewable energy, he added.

“Across all sectors, the options for moving to net zero exist – it’s not about finding new technologies, it’s about finding a route to market for those that exist already. And it is perfectly possible for the UK to move to net zero by 2050 with very little disruption.”

But he said that to cut emissions to net zero by 2025, the key demand of the Extinction Rebellion campaigners who occupied key central London landmarks last week, would require a “shift” in the balance from market led solutions to heavier regulation.

Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director at the Confederation of British Industry, said companies can adapt to a net-zero future but only if they are given a clear road map by policy-makers.

He said: “It won’t happen on its own – and in terms of what business needs from government, I would sum it up as ‘certainty, certainty, certainty’. Firstly, signing up to net zero will provide certainty about the destination. Secondly, we need certainty about the policy framework that’s going to get us there – an end to the chopping and changing that we’ve seen in recent years. And finally, political certainty so we don’t have big changes after every general election; and it’s heartening therefore to see the strong cross-party consensus on net zero.

“The longer we delay, the harder it’s going to be. So, let’s get on with it.”

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